A grand jury investigation of Alaska's Office of Children's Services requested by Rep. Tammie Wilson, R-North Pole, noted that the Alaska Citizen Review Panel is "statutorily required" to address the concerns she raised. The Alaska panel was established in 2002, but very few know of it, or its work. So, what is the Alaska Citizen Review Panel, what does it do, and can it really address the concerns raised by Wilson?

Congress mandated citizen review panels in 1996 to "provide new opportunities for citizens — not just child protection bureaucrats — to play an integral role in" child protection. The panels are mechanisms for public participation in child protection policy and practice. Today, after 20 years, there are more than 340 such panels across the country. Alaska has one. Unlike many states, Alaska has a state statute authorizing the citizen review panel.

Panels must be made up of citizen volunteers representing the diversity of the state's population, should include individuals with experience and expertise in addressing child maltreatment, and must meet at least four times a year. Individual states are required to provide necessary staff support for their panels and access to any information that the panels deem necessary.

The panel's work is all about the policies, procedures, and practices of state and local Child Protective Services agencies. They have three functions. One, review the policies, procedures and practices. Two, conduct outreach to collect public opinion on the impacts of those policies and practices on children and families served by those CPS agencies. Three, advocate for relevant changes. The citizen panels are required to produce an annual report, with details of their activities through the year and recommendations for change. Corresponding state child protection agencies are required to respond in writing within six months of its panel's report.

OCS is the only child protection agency in Alaska. With approximately 500 employees in 20 different regional and field offices, and an annual budget of over $150 million, OCS is a complex agency. In contrast, the panel's annual budget is $100,000, and is part of OCS's annual budget. The panel's funding is routed through a contract between OCS and a private consulting firm to provide staff support for the panel. Some of that money is used for the panel's expenses beyond staff support, such as travel and stationery. The panel has always been small, with no more than nine volunteers at any time, contributing 1,200 to 1,500 volunteer hours of work each year, since it began operations in 2002.

So, how does a small volunteer panel with little money review a vast agency like OCS with a complex mandate? Instead of reviewing everything every year, the panel selects about four issues each year. It interviews about 100 individuals across the state, conducts several focus group meetings, site visit reviews, and surveys to collect as much information as possible, directly from stakeholders. Using this information, the panel generates recommendations. All its work is posted online at www.crpalaska.org, and submitted to every legislator and the governor's office.

OCS may agree or disagree with these recommendations, and is not bound to implement any of them. So, is the Alaska Citizen Review Panel effective? It was in the past — the panel was instrumental in creating the Western Region. It brought about many other changes that are not as noticeable. Each time, its effectiveness depended on input and engagement from individual citizens.

So, the grand jury is right — the citizen review panel is statutorily required to address the concerns raised by Wilson. It will publish another report, with recommendations. It has been doing this since 2002. Panel recommendations can bring about change only when they are championed by multiple people at all levels. Whether you are a birth parent, foster parent, professional in the field, legislator or just a concerned citizen, join the chorus of the citizen review panel. Find out how you can contribute. Together is the only way for meaningful change.

Diwakar Vadapalli is the chair of the Alaska Citizen Review Panel for child protection and an assistant professor of public policy with the Institute for Social and Economic Research at the University of Alaska Anchorage.

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